Tamil Nadu

25 years of Vachathi: Symbol of standing up against state-sponsored violence

A view of the Vachathi tribal village under the foothills of Sitheri, near Harur in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district.   | Photo Credit: N. Bashkaran

In many ways, the Vachathi rape case was a test case: not so much for the judiciary as for India’s social conscience. In June 1992, Vachathi, a tribal hamlet in northern Tamil Nadu, was witness to what brutal law enforcers and callous government officials could do to the poor and the powerless. Women were raped, men were assaulted, houses were looted and destroyed, and cattle were killed, all in the name of upholding law, of preventing the illegal felling and smuggling of sandalwood. The planned, systematic attack on Vachathi was carried out quite brazenly.

What happened?

On June 20, 1992, forest and revenue personnel entered Vachathi, a village of the ‘Malayallee tribals’ in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district on the pretext of a raid following “information” that sandalwood was being illegally felled and smuggled. They vandalised homes, brutalised women and destroyed livestock. Eighteen women were raped.

How did the incident come to light?

25 years of Vachathi: Symbol of standing up against state-sponsored violence
 

It took more than a fortnight for the outside world to know the enormity of the violence. A few villagers hiding in Sitheri hills, brought the issue to the attention of the leaders of the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association, affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The association’s president Bhasha John and vice-president N. Krishnamurthy were in Sitheri to attend a conference on July 7, 1992, and they informed their general secretary P. Shanmugam, who first entered Vachathi, on July 14, 1992, along with six other leaders.

How did the government respond?

The government of the day, under Jayalalithaa, denied the charges. The then Forest Minister, K.A. Sengottaiyan, accused the entire village of being involved in sandalwood smuggling. In a strongly worded statement on July 21,1992, Mr. Sengottaiyan claimed that the forest officials had seized smuggled sandalwood worth ₹1.5 crore during the raid in Vachathi. He accused the villagers of unleashing violence against government personnel. As many as 300 families residing in the village were involved in sandalwood smuggling throughout the year and earned ₹500 a day, he said. Claiming that the Chief Minister was creating history by curbing sandalwood smuggling, he said, the Vachathi episode was only a step towards achieving that goal.

When the rape victims lodged a complaint with the Harur police station on August 22, 1992, the sub-inspector refused to register a case. Though the District Collector on July 14, 1992 asked the Revenue Divisional Officer to visit Vachathi and conduct an inquiry, the latter went there only a month later. The “objective and independent” report submitted by the RDO on August 10, 1992 claimed that the “alleged rape incident cannot be believed” and that the “villagers themselves damaged their houses, in order to put the blame on the forest and police officials”.

The Opposition DMK was no better. It came to power for two terms since the atrocity happened (1996-2001 and 2006-2011). In the words of a victim the DMK "did nothing for us. All that we demand is legally eligible enhanced compensation and not a penny from any party".

How did the investigation progress?

The CPI(M) filed a public interest petition before the Madras High Court on July 30, 1992. But it was rejected by the PIL cell on the grounds that government officials would not have indulged in such acts and hence the case was not fit for being taken up as a PIL. CPI (M) State secretary, A. Nallasivan then filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court on September 3, 1992. The apex court passed an order four days later transferring the writ petition to the High Court, stating that it should be heard as early as possible.

On November 4, 1992, the High Court passed interim orders to restore basic amenities to the village and asked the Director of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission B. Bhamathi to visit Vachathi and submit a report within two weeks.

Due to the delaying tactics of the State government it took three years for the High Court to order a CBI inquiry into the complaints of rape of 18 women, looting of properties and illegal detention of 90 women and 28 children at the forest range office at Harur.

In 1995, on another writ petition filed by Mr. Nallasivan, the High Court handed over the probe to the CBI, which charge-sheeted 269 officials. The State government filed an appeal against the CBI inquiry and a Division Bench dismissed the appeal in March.

How did the CBI inquiry go?

The CBI submitted its report to the Madras High Court on April 25, 1996. A charge sheet was filed before the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Coimbatore two days earlier against 269 forest, police and revenue officials for various offences, including rape. A total of 244 accused were remanded in custody. The case was committed to the District and Sessions Court, Dharmapuri, at Krishnagiri on October 10, 1996.

How did the case move after the CBI charge sheet?

As there had not been much headway in the case for nearly six years, a writ petition was filed on January 30, 2002 by Mr. Shanmugam, seeking the appointment of a special court and a special public prosecutor. Besides ordering compensation for the rape victims, the High Court directed the State government on June 27, 2002 to appoint CBI public prosecutor K. Jayabalan to conduct the case in the Dharmapuri sessions court.

The hearing of the case was adjourned several times as some of the accused would not turn up before the court. On many occasions, the court pulled up Forest Department personnel for their recurrent absence. A new hall was constructed in the court complex in view of the large number of the accused. And part of the actual compensation prescribed under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules, 1995 was paid only in July 2007.

What was the verdict?

In June 2011, the Madras High Court directed the lower court to expedite the trial in the case. On September 29, 2011, nearly 20 years after the incident, the designated trial court sentenced all the 215 surviving persons of the 269 accused in the case. Among the accused are 126 forest personnel, 84 police personnel and five revenue personnel. The jail terms for various offences range from one year to 10 years. Among those found guilty were four Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers.

Victims of the 1992 violence at Vachathi and their relatives with P. Dillibabu, CPI(M) MLA representing the Harur constituency, in front of the party office in Dharmapuri on September 29, 2011, when the verdict was announced.

Victims of the 1992 violence at Vachathi and their relatives with P. Dillibabu, CPI(M) MLA representing the Harur constituency, in front of the party office in Dharmapuri on September 29, 2011, when the verdict was announced.   | Photo Credit: N. Bhaskharan

 

It was poetic justice that the verdict came at a time when the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK was in power. It was the ruling party in 1992 too, and the administration then did its best to protect its officials involved in the case.

The verdict created legal history of sorts for it was the first time India that each one named in a charge sheet was convicted. The CBI earned praise and a cash award from the judge for doing its job meticulously.

What about the compensation and relief?

One year after their legal win, the Vachathi victims got further relief from the Madras High Court. In 2012, the court quashed a charge sheet filed against 105 villagers, including 75 women.

The compensation under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules, 1995 has been fully paid, but over a period of eight years and not without many a legal battle. Mr. Shanmugam, now vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association and a member of the CPI(M) State secretariat, says about ₹3.25 crore has been distributed to the victims. “The distribution began in 2007 and was completed only in 2015 after a lot of struggle,” Mr. Shanmugam tells The Hindu.


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